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Reviving San Diego's city of villages

The only thing worse than the proverbial camel that was a horse created by a committee is a shrunken camel-not only is it stupid looking, but it cannot do the job for which it was designed.

San Diego's tragically battered Strategic Framework Plan, the City of Villages, is gasping for survival after a serious drought of grass roots political support and a bleeding city budget forced the Mayor to emasculate the plan last fall by dumping the density element. The Mayor and the five council members who went along with him by prematurely passing the City of Villages plan sorely miss the point. The public upset at the City of Villages is as much about density, as the public's hatred of the stadium deal is about a ticket guarantee. Both are convenient sound bite scapegoats. The problem with City of Villages has everything to do with the public's lack of confidence that city government will stick to the principles promised in the plan and protect the taxpayer pocketbook along the way. That is precisely why Councilman Maienschein, a fiscal conservative and a community advocate, voted against it.

For the past three years, people who love to talk planning and public policy spent a lot of expensive time convincing each other that the best way to handle a projected population increase of over a million new people is to walk the next generation away from the California American dream: the car and a single family home.

A very skillful public relations effort appeared to have achieved unprecedented consensus from business groups, builders, environmentalists, and all manner of planning policy wonks supporting a vision of multi-family housing around transit, walkable retail and employment centers, and with any luck, some public space and a park or two. And then it came apart when hundreds of real people showed up at the City of Villages City Council hearings with a volume of questions about the plan from which a single theme could be discerned---what guarantees did we have that we the goodies come with the baddies. These were the real people who live in neighborhoods under siege as the city's Development Services Department approves one un-village-like project after another under commercial zoning rules so inclusive that plans for a Starbucks can change to a gas station mini-art, commercial buildings can double in size and big-box shopping centers easily replace walkable villages.

No wonder they fear losing their communities to a different kind of sprawl--the kind that heads upward instead of outward.

The easiest political solution was to cut the density requirements to make the plan less scary, seduce in a few more interests for support, and just make this political nightmare go away.

But, it is density that makes smart growth and the "new urbanism" tick, we were told---including creating those much touted public transportation corridors, increasing housing stock to seriously address affordability, giving incentive for snappy mixed-use projects with street level retail, and generating building fees to pay for the adorable public squares promised by this new urbanism. The Mayor could have risked losing the fragile coalition of interests supporting City of Villages by withholding approval of this drastic plan for San Diego's future until the several details that might actually create an exciting plan were achieved, including a financing plan that encourages private investment and a revamped Development Services Department responsive to the public.

Now, having passed the doctrine without the guts and guarantees, communities and the taxpayer are facing their worst nightmares: over glandular commercial buildings towering over neighborhoods, stacked apartment buildings circling big box shopping centers, assaults on the 30 foot coastal height limit and further desecration of coastal canyons. All this with little public input. The Mayor and the Council could revive the moribund City of Villages plan by considering a few profound changes in the planning process. 1) Bring the Planning and Development Services Departments out from the dark recesses of the City Managers offices and back under their umbrella where the departments lived in the full light of public view until 1991. Few could say that the twelve year experiment has done much to speed the permitting process, and most should admit it has eroded public confidence in the city's planning capabilities.

2) Reform the city's Community Planning Group process to strengthen their credibility. Although serving as advisory bodies, planning groups are the voice of neighborhoods. Members should be elected at the polls instead of in libraries to increase representation and they should be subject to the same conflict of interest disclosure rules as other advisory groups in the city.

3) Articulate a clear policy and consistent guidelines governing the ministerial Substantial Review process. In today's climate, major projects can metamorphose into completely different animals with the flick of a Development Services project manager's pen, while builders of small projects must walk over the coals of public review to add a bathroom or shift a footprint. Gutting the core of the City of Villages Plan by slicing density simply threw a flawed plan in a broken system into a political quagmire. The Mayor and Council need to breathe life into the Strategic Plan, soon. Only in a Village of Idiots would a little camel pass for the real thing.

Ross is a writer and former three-term member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board. She can be reached at

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